Working in the civil service doesn’t seem the most promising place to start your career, due to apparently poorer career capital from most roles. An exception is the UK’s ‘Fast Stream’, which provides rapid progression to management positions.
It’s more promising, however, as an area to enter later in your career. We suspect that being involved in policy-setting provides substantial opportunities for a generally able, altruistic person to make a difference (although we’re uncertain about the extent to which this is true and keen to learn more).
- • Likely to be significant opportunities for an able, altruistic person to improve policy-making.
- • Can gain access to top policy-makers and politicians.
- • Shorter and more flexible hours than in the corporate sector.
- • Weaker career capital, unless you can enter the competitive ‘Fast Stream’.
- • Frustrations from bureaucracy and political compromise.
- • Lower salaries than from corporate jobs.
Key facts on fit
Well-rounded skill profile, happy to work in a very large organisation, able to stick to values in the face of political compromise
Read the online information on policy-oriented roles provided by the UK civil service. If interested after that, we recommend testing your suitability by making a round of applications.
What is this path?
By ‘Civil Service’ we mean seeking jobs in administration within the government, and working your way up the ranks. Note that it’s becoming more and more common to switch in and out of civil service at different career stages, moving between the Civil Service and think-tanks, international organisations, academia or the corporate sector. We add the qualifier ‘policy-oriented’ because many civil servants focus on providing social services, which seems to offer less opportunity for impact than those who focus on developing and implementing policy.
We especially focus on the UK civil service, which seems more attractive than the US. We’re not familiar with these jobs in other countries.
Potential for immediate impact
Potential for direct impact
In the Civil Service, you have scope for direct impact through improving the development and implementation of policy, which is one of the most important forces shaping society. Although your influence might be slight, the scale is very large, so your overall impact has the potential to be large. We’re very uncertain about the amount of room for improvement, but because it’s difficult to give civil servants the right incentives, we expect there are generally opportunities for a smart, motivated and altruistic person to add value.
To maximise your immediate impact within this path, seek out departments that are involved with the causes you think are most high-priority. For instance, if you want to work on development in the UK, aim at DfiD. Some departments may also offer significantly more scope for influence than others. For instance the grant-writing agencies are unglamorous but offer influence over large budgets However, we don’t yet have much information about the differences between agencies.
Salaries are comparable to or only slightly better than academic salaries, but worse than corporate salaries.
Working in the civil service can give you access to top policy-makers and politicians, giving you some ability to promote important ideas. However, because you’ll need to remain apolitical, your ability to take a strong line or speak to the press will be limited.
Overall, we prefer party politics to the civil service, because the influence in party politics seems much larger and more flexible. While there are only thousands of party politicians in the UK, there are almost half a million civil servants. Even after subtracting the majority, who are not substantially involved in policy, party politics still seems to come out better for influence.
Potential for long-run impact
Career capital in this field strikes us as worse than in comparable jobs in the corporate sector, since Civil Service jobs are less respected in the corporate sector, the work is less intense and progression seems slow. The Fast Stream, however, is substantially different. It raises you into management roles within the first year and is fairly prestigious, so represent a good option for career capital. The most prestigious part of the Fast Stream is working at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
Policy-oriented civil servants often move into other roles within policy, such as at think-tanks or academia. Some move to roles in the social sector.
Working in the civil service seems to require a well-rounded profile: good social, analytical and verbal skills. The Fast Stream will require better social skills and the ability to make decisions under pressure, since you’ll be managing a lot of people. The volume of work is also more intense.
How stimulating the work is varies depending on your project and department. Hours seem better than in the corporate sector (they’re shorter and it’s easy to go part-time), but some complain about a slower pace and more bureaucracy.